With everything we have been hearing in the news these past few years about the decline of America’s economy and the growth of China’s, many of us are left asking why. Even after considering the collapse of the housing market, bipartisan politics, unemployment, currency inflation, etc., there is still that lingering question “What happened to American stick-to-it-iveness?” This article will explore that question by looking at informed, research-based projections about the future of the American economy. We will also provide some of our own recommendations on how to meet these challenges and do what we do best – overcome.
What Happened to Our Drive?
In their 2011 book, That Used to be Us (How America fell Behind in the World it Invented and How We can Come Back), Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum told a story about their recent experiences in China, where they were attending the World Economic Forum’s conference. The conference was being held in a brand new convention center in Tianjin, and they soon learned that the massive 2.5 million square-foot center was built from the ground up in… eight months. After coming home from the convention, one of the authors noticed a construction project in the subway station nearest his house in suburban DC, where they were “modernizing” one of the station’s two short escalators. And the timeframe they provided for this project was… six months. With his experience of China fresh in his mind, he noted “A simple comparison made a startling point: It took China… thirty-two weeks to build a world-class convention center… including giant escalators in every corner – and it was taking the DC Metro crew twenty-four weeks to repair two tiny escalators” (Friedman & Mandelbaum, 2011, p. 4). They go on to describe a disturbing trend in America towards resignation: they note that we seem to be getting accustomed to a general lack of initiative and motivation. I mean, why else would China make 75% of a massive convention center in the time it takes us to fix a couple escalators??
Projections of the Future
While I contend that their point is well-taken, I must also state that it is also a comparison between two very different places with very different goals and incentives for finishing these projects. That being said, their book does go on to describe a number of evidence-based reasons for our general apathy towards the slow decline of our economy:
- Public policy orientation. There is far too much conflict and asserting at the policy level, and not enough OODA (i.e., Observing-Orienting-Deciding-Acting).
- Failure to address problems. We have focused so much of our time and energy fighting over certain issues (e.g., education, budget, debt, energy needs, climate change, etc.) that we lost the window of opportunity to address them before they become detrimental.
- Ignoring our customary formula for greatness. We seem to have strayed from our traditional recipe for success – we are not focusing on our abundant strengths and adhering to our own “best-practices.”
- Paralysis of the political system. The extreme division in our political system is making it impossible to properly frame this issue. And if our policy-makers cannot even agree on what the problems even are, how can we move forward and identify strategies for dealing with them?
Our Towering Strengths
Most experts agree that we absolutely have the talent and ability to address these issues. After all, we are the country that sent people to the moon, put robots on Mars, and even invented (and then sadly lost) the Twinkie. Specifically, Friedman and Mandelbaum identified the core strengths that really differentiate us as a nation:
- Diverse opinions and talents
- Flexible economy
- Work ethic
- Talent for innovation
And although we have these strengths, and they are not going anywhere for the time-being, what do we do now? We need to do what we’ve done countless times in the past –stick to it, endure, understand our strengths, and just apply them but leverage them.
Specific strategies for addressing these issues include:
1. Leveraging our Strengths
Organizations (both private and governmental) should start by looking inward and identifying their own towering strengths. These are not just the things that an organization does well – they are the things that an organization excels at… the traits set them apart from the rest.
- For America, these include our vast diversity, our potential for collective action, our (historically) flexible economy, our strong work ethic and our inventiveness.
- What are your organization’s towering strengths? Are they aligned with your core competencies? Are they aligned with your strategy?
2. Leveraging our Diversity
America is extremely diverse, and so are many of our organizations. Diversity has been consistently shown to have positive effects on innovation and creativity, and certain types of diversity are positively related to performance. The outcomes of diversity can be seen at all levels of the organization, from teams of line-staff up to the board of directors. For example, Nielsen and Nielsen (2013) studied senior-leader diversity in hundreds of organizations. They found that, holding everything else equal, organizations with national and functional diversity in their upper-level management teams consistently outperform (higher Return-on-Assets) organizations with less diversity (Nielsen & Nielsen, 2013). However, it is crucial to leverage diversity intentionally because certain types of diversity can be positive while others can lead to conflict and hurt performance. The following types of diversity are the only ones to show consistent positive impacts on performance (Jackson & Joshi, 2011):
- Functional diversity (e.g., cross-functional team)
- National diversity among mid-level and senior-level leadership
- Diversity in the extraversion/introversion of members
- Diversity in age, when working on highly complex tasks
It is also important to limit the types of diversity that are present, as teams that are diverse in multiple spectrums will likely find it difficult to agree on anything. (e.g., ethnic diversity has strongest impact on performance when team members are similar in age and education).
3. Maintaining our Flexibility
Maintaining flexibility can help organizations respond better to changes in the external environment. Structures and processes can be designed to maximize the degree of flexibility in decision-making, problem solving, and idea generation. Specific methods that promote flexibility include:
- Promoting horizontal communication and collaboration. Many organizations do this by implementing cross-functional task force teams, job rotation, or online message boards. To learn more about structured employee involvement, click here.
- Pay close attention to what is going on in the environment. For example, over 90% of failed high-tech firms attribute their failure to a lack of attention on market changes or failing to act on that information (Daft, 2009).
- Remove the buffer between the technical core and external environment. For example, tractor builders at John Deere regularly visit the countryside and talk directly to the farmers that use their equipment.
This article can be considered and applied at two levels. It addresses issues that we are dealing with at a national level, but provides recommendations and is relevant at the organization level. By leveraging our strengths and diversity and maintaining our ability to adapt to change, our nation and its organizations will be that much more prepared to address and overcome the issues we are facing today.
To learn more, you can listen to Thomas Friedman’s NPR interview on “How America Fell Behind” by clicking here.